After watching Bill Maher’s new documentary about the ridiculousness of religion, appropriately titled “Religulous,” it’s hard not to agree with Maher that religion is analogous to a “giant space penis.” This idea stems from a small rural community in England where the citizens diligently maintain a shrubbery-outlined figure of a man with an epic erection on a grassy hillside overlooking the town. Created hundreds of years ago, no doubt by some horny botanist, the presence of this figure remains unquestioned. In “Religulous,” Maher draws an analogy between the mindless devotion of these villagers and the inherently blind nature of religious faith.
Maher and his crew travel the world in an effort to expose, in the words of director Larry Charles, “the hilarious logic” at the core of organized religion. The situations and subjects portrayed consistently reveal the creepy state of denial in which religious leaders settle themselves; they refuse to acknowledge both older and more modern challenges to faith that Maher forces them to confront in an age when religion is the cause of so much turmoil, so much war, and, let’s face it, so much awkward porn. (Note: “Religulous” is rated R, and includes footage of white-robed and habit-clad porn stars sucking on each others’ nipples). Despite Maher’s characteristic self-absorption and hypocritical dogmatism, he clearly did his homework, and he proves to be an effective renegade.
Maher’s odyssey begins and ends in Megiddo, Israel, where some Christians believe the world will come to an end. The film starts out as rocky as the desert terrain on which Maher stands, clad in a sleek black suit, ready to take on modern religious extremists. Maher then appears driving in his car, engaged in a vain monologue that is unfortunately spliced throughout the film, causing it to lag. Luckily, most things that come out of Maher’s mouth tend to be downright hilarious—you just have to get past the fact that Charles, who directed “Borat,” chose to center Maher’s global road trip around a poorly shot, highly generic interview.
Cut to Raleigh, N.C.—the interior of Tuckers Chapel, a trailer church, in which a former Satanist-priest, among other large, red-faced Christian men, claims the Bible saved him from drugs and prostitution. Here, we quickly learn Maher has some serious balls. “How can smart people believe in a talking snake?” he asks. Later, after a round of farewell hugs, he cries, “Hey, where’s my wallet?” Priceless nervous laughter ensues.
But what really makes the film are Maher’s interviews with the religious elite, including Dr. Jeremiah Cummings, a bling-blinging sugar daddy of a preacher who defends his wealth by citing Jesus’ possession of “fine linen.” Another notable subject is Ken Ham, president of the creationist group Answers In Genesis, whose bold statement, “If you believe in evolution, you’d have to believe women came from ape-women,” clearly puts an end to evolutionary theory. There’s also José Luis de Jesús Miranda, the self-proclaimed second coming of Christ, who says “two angels” spoke to him. Maher’s response, “You mean two guys named Angel,” elicits from Miranda the shell-shocked expression that becomes the film’s dominant trope.
And we must not forget John Westcott, the “ex-gay” founder of Exchange Ministries, who believes nobody’s gay and yet gays are born gay and are actually gay because of their insecurities, despite Maher’s rebuttal that it takes a lot of security to walk out of the house in assless chaps. The two make peace in the end, as Westcott bounces over to Maher to give him a hug to the underscoring of the “Brokeback Mountain” theme song. This moment is almost matched when, in a later sequence with a bonafide pothead with clerical credentials, Maher jumps up like a schoolboy as the Reverend’s hair is lit on fire by a nearby candle. Never have the words “Look out! Your head is on fire!” been more profound.
Maher does well not only to attack Christianity; he also digs his claws into Judaism and Islam. An interview with Rabbi Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist who supports the Iranian president’s recent denial of the Holocaust, reveals the darkest entrails of religious hypocrisy. While roaming the underground tunnels of Amsterdam, Maher interviews Muslim British rapper Aki Nawaz of the band Propagandhi, whose controversial lyrics glorify terrorism. Incidentally, Nawaz, whose livelihood literally depends on freedom of speech, has no qualms about the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses,” which incensed Muslim leaders in the late 80s.
“Religulous,” while sure to put Maher on a million shit-lists, challenges what we take for granted in religion, as both a phenomenon and institution. Despite its inevitable bias and self-commentating nature, the film speaks for itself—and it speaks loudly, passionately, and presciently. The job of a comedian is to attack sensitive issues in society in a way that both innocently mocks and pointedly slanders. Maher succeeds, probing into old wounds that refuse to heal. An anthropological affront, “Religulous” reminds us that religion looks a lot like mental illness, and even more like a blind call to an archaic battle.